Wednesday, July 30, 2014

From My Shelves - Lewis Grizzard

("From My Shelves" is an occasional series that looks at personal favorites from my personal collections)

The various works of author, columnist and humorist Lewis Grizzard - It's just over 20 years since Lewis Grizzard died at age 47.  I'm not sure how I "discovered" Grizzard.  My best bet is that I was looking for something else and stumbled on the delightful titles of his books:

  • Kathy Sue Loudermilk, I Love You: A Good Beer Joint Is Hard to Find and Other Facts of Life 

    • Won't You Come Home, Billy Bob Bailey?: An Assortment of Home-Cooked Journalism for People Who Wonder Why Clean Underwear Doesn't Grow on Trees
    • Don't Sit Under The Grits Tree With Anyone Else But Me 
    • They Tore Out My Heart and Stomped That Sucker Flat 
    • If Love Were Oil, I'd Be About A Quart Low 
    • Elvis Is Dead and I Don't Feel So Good Myself 
    • Shoot Low Boys - They're Riding Shetland Ponies 
    • My Daddy Was A Pistol and I'm a Son of a Gun 
    • When My Love Returns From The Ladies Room, Will I Be Too Old To Care? 
    • Don't Bend Over In the Garden, Granny - You Know Them Taters Got Eyes 
    That's not all of them but it gives you a taste.  Grizzard began as a sports writer and editor, rising quickly up the ladder at the Atlanta Journal, where he was installed as sports editor at age 23.  The Chicago Sun-Times then lured him to their staff.  The problem was that first and foremost, Lewis was a southern boy.  Never happy in the Windy City, he eventually returned to Atlanta.

    The good news for us is that Grizzard kept up a steady stream of columns and stories, sharing all the events of his life with his particular brand of self mocking humor.  These are the work of an author who understands his trade.

    The funny stories can make you laugh until you cry.  The sad ones will make you cry till your heart breaks.  If I had to pick a single book as my all time favorite, it would be his paean to his father, "My Daddy Was A Pistol, And I'm A Son of a Gun".  I'm not sure there is a greater or more heartfelt tribute by a son to his father written anywhere, any time, by anyone.

    You can read his books when you've only got a few minutes to spare because many of them are made up of columns.  Or you can decide to dedicate an afternoon or day to this great American humorist and let him teach you things about life you never thought about before you turned a page.

    Grizzard stands squarely in the tradition of Mark Twain.  That's pretty high flown company.  Lewis Grizzard is that kind of writer.  Quintessentially American, with a sharp eye, a way with words and a willingness to make himself the butt of the joke.

    Go find his books today.

    Monday, July 28, 2014

    Movie Review - Marty

    Marty (1955) - A thirty-something Italian butcher getspressure from every direction about getting married.  Try as he will, he never seems to find the right girl.  Until one night, in a dance hall he meets a young woman who had given up on ever finding love as well.  A warm and wonderful story about people who had decided they didn't have what it took for love.

    The posters for this movie were awful but I like
    this one because it captures the two
    most important moments of the story.
    Paddy Chayefsky adapted his TV script of a few years earlier into the movie version.  Ernest Borgnine stars in the title role.  Up to this time he had played mostly bad guys and Borgnine credits this movie with changing his career forever.  This is such a warm and gentle picture that it's the perfect follow up to the intense emotional ordeal of last week's movie (Long Day's Journey Into Night).  Marty is just a nice guy.  The kind of nice guy that so many woman say they want but all too often turn up their noses when they meet one.  He hangs out with a bunch of sad sack friends who haven't figured out that their current plan ("What you want to do tonight?  I dunno, what you wanna do?") is getting them precisely nowhere.  Problems arise when Marty tries to change his life with Clara (Betsy Blair).  His friends object and his mother suddenly feels like she's about to be replaced.  The only question is this - will Marty stay true to himself or not?

    In addition to being a great, little film (Oscar winner for Best Picture AND only 90 minutes long.  Shortest Best Film winner.  Also Best Director, Best Leading Man and Best Screenplay) "Marty" is a treasure trove for the movie trivia lover.  First time a director won Best Director in the director's film debut (Delbert Mann).  First film to spend more on the Oscar campaign than the actual production budget.  Only the second film to win the Best Picture Oscar and the Palme d'Or at Cannes ("Lost Weekend" was the first).  It was the film debut for Jerry Orbach (uncredited) plus featured actors who would become familiar on television in the '60s - Jerry Paris as Marty's cousin (Rob and Laura's neighbor on "The Dick Van Dyke Show") and Frank Sutton as one of Marty's seedier friends, Ralph (Sgt. Carter on "Gomer Pyle, USMC").

    But that is simply bonus material.  The script is compact without losing an ounce of warmth and humanity.  The characters are believable, with Borgnine's Marty being the true gem. The characters of Marty's mom and aunt are delightful (maybe in part because I've older ladies just like them). It's the kind of movie that makes you wonder why you'd never seen it before (or if you have seen it before, whats taken you so long to see it again)

    Rating - ***** Highly Recommended

    Wednesday, July 23, 2014

    Book Review - What It Was Like

    What It Was Like -  Peter Seth (2014) - In the summer of 1968 a young man takes a job at a summer camp in Upstate New York.  He will enter Columbia University that fall on a scholarship and needs to make some pocket money.  It is at camp that he meets Rachel Prince.  She's the unattainable queen of Camp Mooncliff.  Beautiful but remote.  The narrator (we never learn his name) tries anyway and wins her heart.  It begins a roller coaster ride of love and betrayal that leads to prison for him.

    Don't worry, I haven't given anything away.  You'll find out he's in prison on the very first page.

    The English have this wonderful concept of the "busman's holiday".  In simplest form it means that you spend your vacation doing something related or similar to what you do for a living.  So a busman (bus driver) would go on a bus tour, a teacher would take classes, etc.  As a youth minister, reading this book was something of a busman's holiday for me.  It's about teenagers and the convoluted lives they can lead when life runs a little too far ahead of their ability to cope.

    Sadly, this means that there was very little mystery about "what happens next" for me.  Within a hundred pages I knew the ending, at least in broad strokes.  The only question was whether it was going to be Romeo and Juliet, or Charlie Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate.  Consequently most of my reading time consisted of watching the adults in the story screw up the lives of these two young people over and over and over.  The camp director, Rachel's parents, the narrator's parents, each every one of them failed these young people repeatedly.  Any of them could have averted the ending but chose not to do so.  From my point of view it was simply infuriating.

    (Some folks may be surprised to see I include the narrator's parents in the list of failures.  They are presented as nice if somewhat ineffectual folks just trying to do the best they can.  I don't deny any of that.  At the same time one of them needed to sit down and have a serious talk with their son as his life began to spin out of control.  Instead they sat back, shook their heads mournfully and did nothing.  In choosing their comfort over the needs of their child they failed their son just as surely as the vindictive evilness of Rachel's parents failed her.)

    The authorial conceit of never naming the narrator could have become overly cute or burdensome.  Credit to Peter Seth's writing skill that I very nearly didn't notice it.  It wasn't till I tried to describe the action to my wife and couldn't come up with the boy's name that it struck me.

    For me, "What It Was Like" didn't break any real new ground.  The story here is all too familiar.  Emotionally immature/broken teens desperately search for love, connection and stability.  Poor decisions are made because they lack the background to understand what they are doing and they lack the parental support to gain it safely.  Most kids get through that phase with just some minor emotional scars.  Some don't make it through at all.  It's just sad, depressing reading that's all too close to home.

    At the same time, Seth's story telling skill is highly polished.  The story is easily readable and carries the reader along quite effortlessly.  While the story may have dragged at me, the storytelling kept me going.  Hundreds of pages of personal and professional agony that I still wanted to plow through.  I'm not sure there's any higher praise you can offer an author.

    I wanted to be wrong.  Seth kept me reading until I found out.

    "What It Was Like" is due on the bookshelves September 2, 2014 from The Story Plant.

    This one is a tough call for me.  The story is only a 3 star for me personally but the writing deserves a little better than that.  So somewhere between a "Worth A Look" and "Recommended".

    Rating - ***1/2  

    Monday, July 21, 2014

    Movie Review - Long Day's Journey Into Night

    Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962) - A drug addicted mother (Katherine Hepburn), an alcoholic, former stage matinee idol father (Ralph Richardson), the no account older son (Jason Robards) and the pampered baby of the family who has contracted tuberculosis (Dean Stockwell) slash at one another as their family begins its final descent into dysfunction.  They alternate between screaming insanity, caustic sarcasm and occasional glimpses of familial love as they deal with the issues between them by trying to avoid discussing those issues whenever possible.

    This is not a pleasant family.  It sounds like they may have been once upon a time but even then you find tiny glimpses of the decay at the center of this family's soul.  Did Jamey (Robards) intentionally expose his infant brother to the measles, resulting in the baby's death?  Did James (Richardson) really get left, dead drunk, at his new wife's hotel door on their wedding day?  The legends have become as much a part of their history as what actually happened.  They slash at each other verbally, then retreat, apologize and circle back around to do it again.

    The story is based on playwright Eugene O'Neill's life and the movie is based on the play of the same name.  This is a spectacular cast (there's only one other actor in the entire movie, Jeanne Barr, who plays the house maid Kathleen.  It's a tiny and inconsequential role) is spell binding to watch.  Stockwell is a solid actor who would go on to steady career on TV and in the movies, but it's all he can do to stay with the others.  Robards brings a "dog who has been kicked too often" feel to the role of Jamey, the failed older son.  Lacking any ambition of his own he turned to his father to get him a job in the theater and then derides both his parent and the theater at every chance he gets.  But he never finds the spine to stand up to his father or move on.  Richardson is amazing as the older man who sees that he squandered his chance at greatness by settling for monetary success.  Once upon a time James had been one of the rising stars of the stage but chose to do the same role for years because it was guaranteed money.  When he realized it was time to do something else, it was too late.  He had trapped himself in the role and faded to obscurity.  His rise from poverty has made him a miser.  Not wanting to spend more money than he must has brought great pain to the family, including addicting his wife to morphine.

    Which brings us to Katherine Hepburn's Mary.  Mary is the most volatile of all the family, slipping from madness to despair to razor sharp verbal assault in seconds.  The role has to be exhausting and Hepburn carries every moment she's on the screen.  Mary's anguish at her addiction, the loss of her father to tuberculosis and now the diagnosis of her youngest child with the same, watching her beloved husband fade professionally and descend ever deeper into alcoholism, the complete failure of any sense of accomplishment in her life is soul wrenching.  This is a fabulous performer by one of the finest actors of her generation.

    But this is not an easy movie to watch.  First of all, it's six minutes shy of three hours long.  Three hours without a smile, let alone a laugh.  Three hours watching a family tear itself to shreds, pause to regroup, then do it all again.  The performances are stunning.  The act of watch those performances is an ordeal.  Add in the sometimes intrusive score by Andre Previn and it can be a struggle at times.

    Well worth watching, but not for the weak of heart.  The ordeal just makes it too tough to rate any higher.

    Rating - *** Worth A Look

    Monday, July 14, 2014

    Movie Review - "The Pawnbroker"

    The Pawnbroker (1964) - Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger) is a Jew who survived the Holocaust and now runs a pawn shop in East Harlem.  He carries with him the emotional scars of watching his children killed and his wife raped in the concentration camp.  His solution is to seal off his emotions and reject any connection with the people around him.  Nazerman eventually must face the results of his decisions.

    A chilling look at the emotional death of a man.  Nazerman believes he has found a way to survive, instead he discovers the cost of that decision.  His rejection of the people around him helps him to hold the memories of the past at bay.   The reality is that he has thrown in with a local crime boss (Brock Peters) who is using the pawn shop as a money laundering front for the profits of his criminal enterprises, including prostitution.  It is the discovery of that last fact that shatters his illusions and cause him to lose the people around him once again.

    "The Pawnbroker" is the movie that took Rod Steiger from just another name and put him on the top of Hollywood's list of leading actors.  It earned Steiger an Oscar nomination.  Both he and director Sidney Lumet picked an array of nominations and awards around the world for the movie.   A solid supporting cast (Peters, Geraldine Fitzgerald and even Morgan Freeman in his very first, non-speaking, role) plus a sound track by Quincy Jones make a powerful package.  Shot entirely in black and white the final effect is claustrophobic and stunning.  There is a level of gritty realism that you seldom see.

    Steiger is almost unrecognizable in this movie.  With his thinning hair barely covering his head and equally wispy mustache he looks much more like Anthony Hopkins than the bald headed bull of a man I usually think of when when I think of him.  (We get a glimpse of that Steiger in the concentration camp flashbacks)  His slow, inexorable destruction of Nazerman's protective shell is a brilliant perfomance.

    This is the first major motion picture to deal with the Holocaust from the point of view of a survivor.  It's also the first movie to recieve approval under the old Production Code that showed a woman's bare breasts (actually two women).  This movie would mark the beginning of the end of the Production Code.

    Not a movie when you are looking for a fun way to spend an afternoon.  This is one to keep until you're ready for something special, something challenging, something profoundly human.

    Rating - ***** Highly Recommended

    Monday, July 7, 2014

    Movie Review - Tropic Thunder

    Tropic Thunder (2008) - Through a set of bizarre circumstances a group of actors shooting a big budget Viet Nam war movie suddenly discover themselves in a real shooting war.  They're over budget, behind schedule and their newbie director dies in an accident.  The actors assume everything is more of the director's attemtp to create "realism" so when a drug gang attacks them they assume it's just part of the shoot.  Eventually they have to rescue star Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller).  Utter insanity ensues.

    Let me be honest, I have no idea why I watched this movie.  I can only plead that the concept was so utterly, utterly insane that I couldn't resist.  The cast is certainly interesting - Robert Downey Jr.(playing a white actor who is playing a black character.  A totally over the top performance that has to be experienced to be believed), Jack Black plays another of the cast who is not quite firmly connected to reality.  My feeling has always been that Black is better in a supporting role ("School of Rock" being the obvious exception, although he has a bunch of cute kids to keep him grounded in that one).  Tom Cruise plays movie exec Les Grossman in a performance so completely out of control as to beggar description.  Matthew McConaughey plays agent Rick Peck to a demented T as well.  There's a handful of star cameos as well.

    If you've ever seen a Viet Nam war movie you'll recognize scene after scene in "Tropic Thunder".  They're all there, from "Platoon" to "Apocalypse Now".  Here, they are fabulously sent up by a cast and script that just go for it.  This is a great send up of the entire genre.  It mocks Hollywood, stardom, the movies, even the actors themselves sometimes.

    At the same time I must admit that the movie takes on some uncomfortable humor as well.  Tuggman's previous movie hit "Simple Jack" is more than a little overboard.  Intended to parody heart tugging movies about people with physical or mental challenges (think "Forrest Gump" or "Radio") it spends way too much time just be unpleasant and derogatory.

    I went into this movie prepared to dump it 40 minutes in.  Instead I was amused, charmed and delighted.  It's an utterly insane and often idiotic movie.  But it's a funny, insane and idiotic movie.

    Rating - *** Worth A Look

    Wednesday, July 2, 2014

    Book Reviews - Daughter of Elysium/The Children Star

    Daughter of Elysium (1993) and The Children Star (1998)  by Joan Slonczewski - Two novels from a common universe.  Slonczewski is a microbiologist at Kenyon College and brings that hard science background to her work.  These books make up two thirds of the "Elysium Cycle".  The stories examine events on several planets when an intelligent microbe is discovered.  The microbe lifespan is very short which means they evolve very quickly.  Thus many generations can live within a host in just a fraction of the host's lifespan.  Some of the characters find a relationship with the microbes sentients while others want to fight them.  To do this they create nano-servitors that are injected into the host bodies to fight off the invasion.  When the servitors develop their own level of sentience the situation becomes even more complicated.

    I have yet to find a decent summary of the story of either novel.  Slonczewski has created a wonderfully detailed and intricate universe with complex societies of many different races.  Without some understanding of those societies the story doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

    Here's what I can tell you:

    • This is hard science science fiction.  The author knows her stuff and uses it well.
    • This universe with all its diversity is carefully crafted.
    • The author (yes, I'm tired of typing her name.  Sue me.  My apologies to the good doctor.) is a solid storyteller.
    I have two problems with both novels.  First, is the hard science.  Keeping the science accessible to people like me, who understand just enough science to get in trouble, is always a challenge.  Overall, she does very, very well with a complicated system.  Every once in a while however the story gets submerged in the details of the science.  If you're really into hard science science fiction that is probably not a problem for you.  It was a struggle to me at times.

    My other issue was the complexity of the social aspects of the universe.  These are the first two novels of the cycle so it's not that I missed something by not reading an earlier volume of the series.  Because so much of that complexity is an important part of the story it became a little bit of chore to try and keep it all clear in my head.  I figured it all out in the end.  Which is fine but I dislike feeling like I have to do some of the heavy lifting in reading the book.  Maybe that makes me lazy (but I don't think so) but it can be a stumbling block to enjoying the story.

    In the end, these are wonderfully crafted, complex novels that offer an unique and fascinating universe.  The stories offer something new and interesting with solid characters.  If you are looking for some outstanding science fiction with a hard science basis take a look at the two (the third volume is "Brain Plague").

    Rating - *** Worth A Look

    Monday, June 30, 2014

    Movie Review - Fail Safe

    Fail Safe (2000) - Set at the height of the Cold War,  a computer glitch launches American nuclear bombers toward the Soviet Union.  Because they have passed the "fail safe" point (a precautionary stage designed to avoid these kinds of accidents) they can not be recalled.  The President of the United States faces an unimaginable choice as he tries to avoid an all out nuclear war.

    This is the made for TV version of the best selling 1962 novel of the same name.  There was a major motion picture version made in 1964 starring Henry Fonda and Walter Matthau.  As we headed into the new century CBS aired this version.  With an all star cast (Walter Cronkite, Richard Dreyfuss, Noah Wylie, Don Cheadle, Brian Dennehy, Sam Elliott, James Cromwell, Hank Azaria, George Clooney and Harvey Keitel, among others) and veteran director Stephen Frears (the same year as "High Fidelity") they went for something a little more daring than most made for TV movies.  The original broadcast was done live.  Plus it was done entirely in black and white.  The overall effect is amazing.  Intentionally avoiding modern production slickness gives a better feel for "back then" and builds suspense.  Coupled with the immediacy of a live performance (with its occasional bobbles) and the stunning work of the cast this is enthralling viewing.

    For a modern viewer the black and white, lower production values and minor uneveness of the live performance may be a little disruptive at first.  My advice is to brush all that aside and just let it wash over you.

    Rating - **** Recommended

    Wednesday, June 25, 2014

    Book Review - Mythed Connections

    Mythed Connections by Michael G. Munz (2013) - Three short stories that take the figures of Greek mythology and plant them firmly in the modern world.  In "The Atheist and the Ferryman" a young man discovers there's an enormous river running through his basement.  With a strange and grumpy old man in charge of bringing people across.  In "The Snipe Hunt" a 10 year old girl gets a little revenge on her older brothers with the help of Hermes.  Finally, in "Playing with Hubris" a young author is offered the assistance of both a god and a muse.

    Taking on mythology is an almost irresistable impulse for many authors.  In most cases it's an impulse they really should have resisted.  Which makes the success of these three stories by Michael G. Munz all the more astounding.  He balances all the elements beautifully.  The characters from the ancient world aren't anachronisms wandering aimlessly through the world.  They have a clear grip of who they are and what they do in the modern world.  Munz brings just enough humor to the stories to make them a delight to read.  Don't worry if your Greek mythology is rusty, he gives you the important bits along the way.

    The stories are sharply written and pitch perfect when it comes to the interaction between the modern and mythological characters.  In the end it's just a delightful (and quick, sadly) read.  For a rainy weekend or a summer time read, "Mythed Connections" is the perfect choice.  When you reach the end and wish there was more the good news is that he's expanded the ideas into a full length novel "Zeus is Dead: A Monsterously Inconvenient Adventure".  Look for that to be available in late July of 2014.

    In the meantime, read this one.

    Rating -**** Recommended

    Monday, June 23, 2014

    Movie Review - Swing Time

    Swing Time - (1936)  Dancer and gambler Lucky Garnett (Fred Astaire) gets tricked out of marriage by his fellow performers.  His father-in-law to be will let him try again if he can go to New York and raise $25,000.  Once Lucky gets there he crosses paths with aspiring dancer Penny Carroll (Ginger Rogers).  Dancing and romance ensue.66

    Rogers and Astaire teamed up 10 times on the big screen (this is #6 and Rogers said it was her favorite).  This is a classic musical comedy.  It comes with catchy tunes like "Pick Yourself UplAdance  routines of Rogers and Astaire.  As is also the custom for musicals the plot is a lightwieght  piece designed to string together the music and dancing.  Toss in  a couple of solid character roles (played by Victor Moore and Helen Broderick) and it's a lot of fun along the way.

    Of course, you don't watch Astaires and Rogers movies for the plot.  The dancing sections in this one deliver beautifully.  The movie does show its age a little with the blackface "Bojangles" number.   But it also displays some amazing large ensemble dancing and some snazzy effects for the day and age.

    One of the trademarks of the dancing with Astaire in the movies is that you always get to see the entire dancer.  The emphasis is placed on the dancing rather than highlighting the dancer with closeups.  It results in a much better feel for the dancing and an overall better visual for the movie.  Add in Astaire's preference for dance scenes to be done in one continuous shot and you begin to understand how the dancing holds up so well after so many years.

    I'm always amazed when I watch both Rogers and Astaire.  Neither of them had classic movie star looks.  Ginger comes closest but she's really much more the girl next door good looking as compared to a Grace Kelly movie star.  Astaire bears a remarkable resemblence to silent movie comedy giant Stan Laurel.  Hardly what you would expect for a big time leading man.  In both cases it is the likable personalities of the two stars that make the difference.

    That and the dancing of course.

    Looking for something fun and frothy to wile away an hour or two? This could be just the ticket.

    Rating - **** Recommended